Ethereal beauty, romance, and books during the Joseon period is what this fresh and charming new series is all about.
Free spirited and intelligent Goo Hae-Ryung (Shin Se-Kyung) feels suffocated during a time of traditional laws and patriarchal rule, and spends most of her days as a famed book reader. Instead of following tradition to be wed, she embarks on an adventure of a lifetime and takes a government exam to become one of the first female Historians at the royal court. Renouncing love and marriage, Hae-Ryung becomes entangled with Maehwa, a prominent romance novelist. What Hae-Ryung or anyone else in the kingdom could have never imagined is that the infamous author is none other than Prince Yi Rim (Cha Eun-Woo) going under the pseudonym Maehwa.
Books, books, and more books! There’s finally a Sageuk for us bookworms out there. I had initially wanted to watch this drama because of Hae-Ryung’s character description as a Historian within a historical series which creates a nice context, but this gem of a show took me by surprise with its deeper subject matter. There’s quite a few social issues presented in relation to novels and the time period itself. Hanyang seems stagnated in a world that’s clinging to the past and old ideologies while younger generations have access to a greater amount of knowledge and open minded thoughts, and this is largely due to the vast number of novels and texts pouring into Joseon. Since there’s so many free thinking people on the rise, being influenced by the texts and novels available, the King and his advisors are on edge and begin banning books deemed non-Confucius or unorthodox.
This depicts another aspect of the series where an internal power struggle occurs as Crown Prince Yi Jin (Park Ki-Woong) aims for a liberalized country unlike the rule of the current King, where laws are chalk full of fallacies and oppress the people of Joseon further. Although Yi Rim has no say in what occurs in his father’s court, the sudden ban on books may spiral him into a rebellious phase to lend his older brother a helping hand since books have given him a desire to live and experience the world through the confines of palace walls.
Yi Rim is an interesting character in the sense that he’s quite extrinsic. He feels like an outsider within the palace, with no meaningful relationships other than the one he has with his brother, making it painstakingly apparent as to why he’s so keen to build a vicarious relationship with his readers through the novels he writes. Over time however, he does form a bit of an ego as a bestselling novelist so his sudden encounter with Hae-Ryung as she passes his latest work as boring at best, riles him up.
As a Prince, Yi Rim has never encountered love or knows what it’s like to love someone so deeply to give your life for them, so his content is solely based on the love lives of others and what they tell him. It’s through these details that Yi Rim writes his novels, and feels absolutely stumped at Hae-Ryung’s disinterest and unimpressed remarks about his works. As a historical male lead, Yi Rim is adorable with how fascinated he is when he steps outside of the palace, his treatment of Hae-Ryung, or with his relationship with his brother. It’s also evident that he might be a romanticist but his interactions with Hae-Ryung leave him dazed, confused, and caught in a lot of mishaps which create some lighthearted comedic moments.
Hae-Ryung on the other hand, feels like a modern woman stuck in the wrong time period and personally, this seems to be the intent of the Writers. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were Women’s Rights, so to see the struggles Hae-Ryung goes through to live her best life and to be treated as an equal, says a tremendous amount about how far women have come and where they stand today. And it’s nice to see a drama series explore a world that isn’t so fickle and tries to give women like Hae-Ryung, opportunities within professional fields despite the backlash and hostility they receive.
As a character, she’s charming for her intellect and consideration for others, and only uses the ‘noble woman’ card in dangerous situations or to avoid interacting with others when it feels pointless. She just wants to be free to read books all day and to consume the neoteric ideas expressed but the state has other things in store for her. If she doesn’t marry by her own free will, she’ll be forced into a disadvantaged match and sent to marry an unknown noble since it’s considered ominous to have a spinster within a town. It puts her brother in a bind since he’s well aware of the extremely conservative advisors who are on the brink of radically exercising their authority to quell any ‘new worldly’ notions of living.
Off the bat, Hae-Ryung openly speaks her mind in Yi-Rim’s presence while he informally addresses her lack of taste for disliking Maehwa’s works. This first encounter immediately sets the tone of their relationship, since there’s no malice or angst in this historical series as all the drama is preserved for the politics and Hae-Ryung’s struggle to become a Historian. The chemistry from the premiere is pretty impressive and I’m looking forward to what our leads will give us as the show progresses and their relationship deepens.
That being the case, the casting could not have been better. I thought our main leads would make quite the onscreen couple but when Park Ki-Woong and Lee Ji-Hoon’s names were dropped, my jaw dropped too. I expect the two of them to be major scene stealers and Park Ki-Woong does exactly that whenever he’s onscreen during the pilot episode so at least we’re in good hands when it comes to portraying political strife and internal palace wars.
Since MBC and Netflix both have a stake in the production and making of the drama, the cinematography and visuals are stunning (if you thought Cha Eun-Woo couldn’t get any prettier or otherworldly, think again!) And this is quite fitting considering there’s a romanticized idea of intersecting love and romance with a love for books, Joseon being a timeless backdrop that adds vibrancy and colours through the use of costumes and handsome Princes.
I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing, the lightheartedness of the premiere, and how well the drama integrates more serious social issues while still maintaining a light atmosphere and tone. I’ve only been waiting a lifetime for this series to air so my expectations are through the roof right now! With a positive reception and fresh new take on Joseon, this is one summer Sageuk you won’t want to pass on.
Release Date: July 17, 2019 (Eng Sub available on Netflix)